Woman living in sanctuary at North Philly church fasting for Thanksgiving to protest ICE

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, (second from right) with her children Yoselin Artillero Apolonio, 13, (center), Keyri Artillero Apolonio, 15, (right), Edwin Artillero Apolonio, 11, (second from left), and Fidel Artillero Apolonio, 17, (left) in sanctuary at the Germantown Mennonite Church. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, (second from right) with her children Yoselin Artillero Apolonio, 13, (center), Keyri Artillero Apolonio, 15, (right), Edwin Artillero Apolonio, 11, (second from left), and Fidel Artillero Apolonio, 17, (left) in sanctuary at the Germantown Mennonite Church. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As some families get ready for a weekend of thanks and brine their turkeys on Wednesday, Carmela Apolonio Hernandez will be fasting at the Germantown Mennonite Church — her temporary home and refuge from immigration officials. 

Hernandez has lived in churches since December 2017, after receiving a removal order, in an effort to avoid deportation. Immigration officials typically avoid making arrests in spaces considered sanctuaries, like churches and schools.

After seeking political support and exploring every legal option at her disposal to no avail, Hernandez is resorting to the symbolic.  

Her one-day fast, which she plans to make a weekly protest, is in solidarity with other families who are also living in houses of worship, and a message for federal immigration officials during the peak holiday season.

“If the people who work [at ICE] have a family — and they’re going to have a dinner or gathering with their family — I hope they remember there are people … unjustly living in sanctuary,” she said. 

Since 2015, Hernandez has tried to tell immigration authorities she and her four children cannot go back to Guerrero, Mexico.

“Her life and the lives of her children are in danger if she’s sent back to Mexico. That’s why she’s [still] in a church two years after she set foot in sanctuary,” said David Bennion, executive director of the Free Migration Project and Hernandez’ attorney.

Hernandez said drug traffickers murdered her brother and two of her nephews in Guerrero and were sending her death threats.

The family applied for asylum when they first arrived in the country, but were rejected in 2016.

Hernandez later applied for a U-visa, which protects immigrants who have been victims of crimes if they cooperate with local authorities, but saw that application denied at the end of 2018.

A private bill in Congress that would allow the family to stay has also been explored. In 2018, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady introduced such a bill in the House Judiciary Committee, but that fell through after he retired.  

“It’s very hard. No one knows how a person has to live in sanctuary,” said Hernandez. “The stress gets you, the illnesses get you, and you have to fight stress, illness, and depression … day to day.”

 Still, the family is not giving up.

 Just this summer, Hernandez’ 15-year-old daughter Keyri visited Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

“I asked [lawmakers] for me and my family’s freedom,” Keyri said.

If lawmakers weren’t available for a meeting, she left pamphlets about the family’s ongoing efforts to stay in the country.

Meanwhile, Bennion continues to work the courts. He’s using a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision as a basis for the Hernandez case be reopened in the third circuit court.

Hernandez is also appealing the U-visa denial and encouraging U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans to introduce a private bill that would help Hernandez and her children stay in the country.

The fast is just another way to raise awareness for her case and others who are facing deportation like Edith Espinal in Ohio, who is on a hunger strike.

Members of the Germantown Mennonite Church will join Hernandez in a weekly Wednesday fast, which she plans to hold until she can walk out of the church without risk of arrest.

If Hernandez doesn’t see a change, she’s willing to resort to other methods, like a longer hunger strike. Until then, the family will have a relatively quiet Thanksgiving.

“I don’t know what I would say thank you for if I’m still in sanctuary,” Keyri said.

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